The most important new character of 2008 is Agent Phil Coulson. Though he didn’t have a first name until 2010, of course. Still. Tony Stark and Obadiah Stane and, sigh, Pepper Potts were all important to Iron Man the movie. (Man, I am never going to forgive Stan Lee for some Marvel characters’ names. Especially knowing that all that alliteration was because he kept forgetting them and couldn’t just keep a story bible like a normal person.) Nick Fury was important to Marvel. But I feel like Agent Coulson was the creation of a distinct Marvel Cinematic Universe, a thing that had a full continuity within the series of films.
In 1978, we got Superman. 1984’s Supergirl was supposedly connected to that series. 1989 was Batman, and I suppose 2004’s Catwoman might possibly be connected to that series? And certainly the ending of Iron Man strongly hinted that, were the movie popular enough, we’d get an Iron Man 2. But then Tony Stark showed up in The Incredible Hulk that same year, and that was amazing. That meant that the two movies were connected not because they were both Marvel but because they were in the same, well, cinematic universe.
It’s not new to Marvel, not really. For one thing, there’s all those crossing-over and spun-off TV shows. Are Cheers and Frasier a television universe? I think so. To say nothing of Mary Tyler Moore, Rhoda, Phyllis, and Lou Grant. And so forth. There are several TV shows that spun off half a dozen or so others. That’s not cinematic, true, but how many hours of shared universe is that? Add in every show that is connected through one-off crossovers and the existence of Detective Munch, and it’s almost as though half of television is somehow connected. Beyond that, there’s Kevin Smith’s Askewniverse and whatever Tarantino’s universe is called.
Marvel, though, was developed specifically to have a connection with its characters, not to cash in but to carry through. Oh, yes, it’s a financial move. I don’t deny that. But it’s also a storytelling move. When Marvel sold off its characters to other studios, before the development of Marvel Studios, they lost the option for various characters to interact as they long had in the comics and even on the animated TV shows. You couldn’t get the weird bickering of Spider-Man and Wolverine in the movies that you did in the comics.
Even from the beginning of Iron Man, though, we were building up to The Avengers. Everyone knew it; it’s explicit already. Tony Stark is in The Incredible Hulk. Samuel L. Jackson was said to have signed a contract to do a dozen Marvel movies—a dozen! Not since Andy Hardy, possibly, had we seen so many movies in a series, and unlike Andy Hardy, this would open us to possibly dozens of already established characters.
I remember being astonished in 2008 that we had not one but four comic book movies that came out that summer. And they were even all good! We skipped 2009, but ever since then, there’s been one or two, and in the last couple of years three, Marvel movies every year. Not everyone thinks they’re all good, of course, and the debate about which ones are and which ones aren’t will last long after anyone cares, but they’re there.
The two charges leveled against the series most often is that they’re all the same and that people have developed “superhero fatigue.” Article after article, social media post after social media post. I’ve read frankly more than I want to about those two things.
The first just confuses me. We are talking about a film universe that contains Iron Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Doctor Strange. Frankly, I would even say there’s considerable difference between Captain America: The First Avenger and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, though I could get an interesting piece about how the World War II movie of the first flows into the Cold War thriller (for all it’s about someone who missed the entire Cold War, and I bet that’s not in his little book) of the second. The Iron Man movies are fairly similar to one another, and I think that bleeds a bit into The Avengers, but the universe is not as cookie-cutter as some people would have you believe.
As for superhero fatigue . . . well. The obvious response is “just don’t watch them.” And I get the feeling that they’ve sort of bled into everything else. I do understand that concern. On the other hand, I think that ship sailed well before Marvel Studios was a thing. I think they’re part of the same blockbuster tradition that goes back to at least Cleopatra—and I’ve seen Cleopatra, and I don’t think there’s a Marvel movie that isn’t better.
I assume there were plenty of articles written in the ’50s and ’60s about Western fatigue, though I also assume they didn’t call it that. I know there’s a fair amount of media mocking the trend. I would also say that you cannot detect a child of the teens by a cape and mask the way you can detect a child of the ’50s and ’60s by a coonskin cap or by a cowboy hat and gunbelt. When superheroes are that ubiquitous, I’m willing to listen to complaints of fatigue—five or six movies a year, three of which are pretty good, is really not all that many.
I think Marvel came out of the gate swinging in 2008 with a strong character in Tony Stark. I think they gave him a good story—and my goodness, aren’t we lucky that they took a chance on a known, let’s be honest, real-life Tony Stark. (When they cast him, most of the people I know just kind of nodded and said, “Yeah, that makes sense.” Unless they said, “Who’s Tony Stark?”) No one wanted to trust him except Jon Favreau, and he and Marvel have done very well for each other.
I think that is also the difference between the MCU and pretty well every other cinematic universe that has been attempted since. I think there’s a way to start with The Avengers and use that to make you care and split it off and so forth, and I honestly think the DCEU might have been well served to attempt that, if they wanted to simultaneously copy Marvel and distinguish themselves from it. But the story and the characters have to come first; we’re not going to follow you just because you stick “universe” on the end of your name.
The thing to remember, too, is that Marvel didn’t even start with the characters people knew best, for the most part. Iron Man? Where was the guarantee that an Iron Man movie would be successful? I’m a comics fan going back decades, and I wasn’t demanding an Iron Man movie. This, I think, is the most interesting result of Marvel’s having sold off the properties people care about—they were then forced to make movies with who they had left. Thor? Okay, Captain America. But even now, Doctor Strange? Okay, Black Panther. But Guardians of the Galaxy?
And let’s be real—the cry for a Black Panther movie is not about a particular need for Black Panther, the character, from the general public, just as people demanding a Black Widow movie are not long-time Black Widow fans. I would suggest many of them hadn’t even heard of her before 2010. They are about the thing the MCU is frankly worst at, and that’s representation.
The Netflix TV shows, which may or may not be fully in the same continuity, are the best at this. All the way around. After all, we had Luke Cage before we had T’Challa. Jessica Jones, and we still don’t have Carol Danvers, not until next year. And, um, our only real representation of disability, unless you count Tony’s PTSD and implausible heart thing, is of course Matt Murdoch. There’s even explicit LGBT characters, something the MCU hasn’t touched yet. (I believe there’s something in one of the shorts, but I’ll admit to not having seen all of those yet.) Not hinting and dancing around—lesbians.
There’s better representation behind the camera, too, with women directing every single episode of the second season of Jessica Jones. We don’t get a woman directing an MCU movie until next year, and that’s co-directing. If the MCU is the driving force in the industry that everyone says it is, let’s see them get serious about these things. I haven’t been crying for a Black Widow movie, particularly, because I don’t really much care about Black Widow the character. I’ve been asking about a She-Hulk movie for years now. And let’s give women and PoC the directorial chances white men get—though, okay, Ryan Coogler hasn’t directed all that many movies and has done very well by Marvel.
There’s more to the MCU than just a summary of each film, and I’ve gone on about it for too long to summarize them anyway. I suppose I’m also unsure why you’d read this article if you don’t care enough to at least have a vague idea about Marvel’s characters. Nick Fury isn’t wrong when he tells Tony Stark, after the credits of Iron Man, that Tony has become part of a bigger universe. At the time, I’m not sure anyone could have predicted just how large that universe would get.
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